Chicago Tribune, Dec. 17, 2000

‘I am an innocent man’

a subsection of the article
3 cases weaken under scrutiny

By Steve Mills, Maurice Possley and Ken Armstrong
Tribune staff writers

A career criminal with a history of mental illness, Wilburn Henderson was convicted of the Nov. 26, 1980, murder of Willa Dean O'Neal, who owned a used-furniture store in Ft. Smith, Ark., with her husband, Bob. O'Neal was shot, police said, in a robbery that netted $41.

The case against Henderson was hardly overwhelming. In 1991, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis named five other possible suspects, chief among them the victim's husband. The court gave Henderson a new trial, saying the evidence against other suspects "creates significant doubt about Henderson's guilt." But a second jury convicted him.

Police had little direct evidence linking Henderson to the murder. At the first trial, the prosecution said a yellow piece of paper showed that Henderson had been in the furniture store. The paper, found on the floor, had two phone numbers that Henderson had been given by a real estate agent. Henderson conceded the paper was his, but said he must have dropped it when he was in the store several days before.

Jurors were told that, before the murder, Henderson obtained a gun from a pawnshop and then pawned it back just after the murder. Ballistics tests, however, were inconclusive about whether that gun was used in the slaying.

And jurors heard about a long, rambling statement Henderson gave police after his arrest, saying another man committed the crime and he just happened to be in the store at the time.

Henderson later recanted the statement, saying he gave it because he feared police would harm him. He said he was in another part of the state when O'Neal was killed, an alibi corroborated by his wife.

Henderson's first conviction was set aside when the appellate court ruled that his lawyer failed to investigate the other suspects. The appeals court focused primarily on Bob O'Neal.

O'Neal, according to interviews and court records, was violent and mentally unstable. In 1985, five years after his wife was killed, he was committed for almost a year to the Arkansas State Hospital for treatment of paranoid delusions. He died in 1992 of a heart attack.

O'Neal owned the type of gun--a .22-caliber pistol--that was used to shoot his wife. He told authorities his gun was stolen after the murder, so it never was tested.

Immediately after the murder, Willa Dean O'Neal's daughter and a stepdaughter--children from previous marriages--told police that they suspected Bob O'Neal.

The daughters said in interviews with the Tribune that O'Neal had abused their mother and that she had begun to talk about divorcing him. Willa Dean O'Neal also had filed an alienation of affection suit against a woman who was having an affair with her husband.

"My first instinct was that it was Bob," stepdaughter Glenda Palmer said. "He was verbally abusive, mentally abusive--just a mean man."

According to court records and interviews, Bob O'Neal, on the day before the murder, asked Willa Dean O'Neal's daughter, Glenda Fleetwood, where her mother wanted to be buried. And on the morning of the murder, he asked Fleetwood to break from the family's routine and work with him on a house teardown instead of at the store with her mother.

That afternoon Bob O'Neal, Fleetwood and her husband stopped by the store before they went to salvage materials from a house. Before they left, O'Neal went back inside briefly. He told Fleetwood and her husband to wait outside, according to interviews and court records. After he came back out, they left for the work site.

A few minutes later, O'Neal sent Fleetwood back to get a root beer from the store. When she returned with a soda and mentioned she had bought it at another store, he insisted she return to the family business for electrical tape, according to court records and interviews.

That was when she discovered her mother's body. Fleetwood summoned police and, accompanied by an officer, went to tell O'Neal his wife was dead.

"When I came up with the police, he said, `Somebody killed her, didn't they?'" Fleetwood told the Tribune.

That comment still bothers Ron Fields, the former Ft. Smith prosecuting attorney who twice tried Henderson. "The troubling thing," Fields said, "was him having this psychic statement--you know, knowing she was already dead. O'Neal couldn't ever explain it."

Yet Fields remains certain that Henderson killed Willa Dean O'Neal.

"If the police could have arrested Bob O'Neal, they would have. Everybody wanted him to be the murderer," said Fields, who called O'Neal a "brute" and said he was widely disliked in town. "I would have loved to have convicted O'Neal. And I could have without breaking a sweat. Problem was, he didn't do it. Henderson did it."

Though other suspects were given lie-detector tests, O'Neal was not, according to records.

At the trial, when the coroner testified that he believed Willa Dean O'Neal was shot in the head as she sat in a chair, Bob O'Neal whispered to a woman next to him, according to court records. "No, that's not the way it was," the woman quoted him as saying. "She dove out of the chair to miss the bullet."

With Henderson on Death Row, O'Neal wrote a letter to the state insisting Henderson had been wrongfully convicted.

Before the second trial, Fields said he offered Henderson several deals to plead guilty and avoid the death penalty. One offer would have allowed Henderson to apply immediately for parole.

But Henderson, insisting on his innocence, wanted to go to trial and be acquitted, said his lawyer, Gerald Coleman. "He never wavered," Coleman said.

The defense tried to point toward O'Neal as the killer at the second trial. But the prosecution offered a witness whose testimony appeared to place O'Neal elsewhere at the time of the murder.

The witness, Clarence Wilson, lived a block from the used-furniture store and had visited Willa Dean O'Neal the day of the killing.

He said that Bob O'Neal had left the store by the time he got there, and that Willa Dean O'Neal was still alive. That left a brief window of time when Henderson could have committed the crime--and mirrored what Wilson told police initially.

At an earlier hearing in federal court, however, Wilson had testified differently, saying he left the store while Bob O'Neal was still inside.

To implicate Henderson, the prosecution again used Henderson's statement, the slip of paper and the information about the gun. He was again convicted.

Henderson, 56, was executed by injection on July 8, 1998. "I am an innocent man," he told the warden. "God forgive you for what you do."